Alive & Kicking enjoyed watching Zambia ease past Sudan on Saturday night to set up their first Africa Cup of Nations semi-final in 16 years, a mouth-watering tie against Ghana. They may lack the superstar status of Kalusha Bwalya, their finest ever player and inspiration throughout the 80s and 90s, but the nation of Zambia has come a long way since 1996. Here we follow Zambia’s trajectory from independence to their third AFCON semi-final in 18 years:
On gaining independence in 1964, Zambia was overly reliant on its major industry – copper. A single party political system was soon established under President Kenneth Kaunda, who nationalised the major mining corporations by 1970. Copper prices slumped over the following decade, causing a balance of payments crisis that led Zambia to become one of the world’s most indebted nations during the 1980s.
Continued economic decline and the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had supported ‘African socialism’) precipitated the end of Kaunda’s regime in 1991. Frederick Chiluba won the ensuing multi-party elections and Zambia embarked on a process of economic liberalisation.
The road to a free market economy has not been entirely smooth, as Zambia’s ailing industries struggled to compete during Chiluba’s tenure. This was part inevitability after 30 years of centralised mis-management, part consequence of institutional corruption. Inflation was brought under control and exports were boosted, but average living standards remained painfully low.
Levy Mwanawasa came to office in 2002 on a strong anti-corruption ticket and investor confidence in Zambia has improved dramatically. Foreign direct investment grew from 278 million US dollars in 2002 to over 1 billion in 2010. The size of the Zambian economy more than quadrupled in that time.
There is also evidence that the proceeds of growth have not just been funnelled to the top, as is so often the case. The Gini index of income inequality (where a score of 100 represents maximum inequality) fell from 52.6 in 1998 to 50.8 in 2004.
So as Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) prepare for Wednesday’s showdown, they know they are representing an African success story. While it’s impossible to ignore the plight of widespread poverty or the million Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, it is a country with a strong sense of hope and aspiration. Herve Renard’s team are the embodiment of that spirit. They are defying the critics and gunning for world cup quarter finalists and African superpower Ghana.
Much as Zambia has had to move on from the copper mines that have dominated its economic story, so the football team has needed to emerge from Kalusha’s shadow. Following a career that spanned twenty years, 100 caps, 50 international goals and a stint as player-coach, that is easier said than done. The 1988 African Footballer of the Year was an inspirational figure, leading his nation on from the tragic Libreville plane crash of 1993 that killed everyone on board, including 18 team mates. It almost defies belief that less than a year later they reached the Cup of Nations final for the first time. Kalusha’s legendary status was cemented 2 years later as he fired his team to the semis, picking up the golden boot in the process.
This year’s co-hosts happen to be Gabon, creating the possibility of an emotional return to Libreville for the final. 16 years on from their last AFCON semi-final, Zambia have the opportunity to emulate their greatest player, honour the loss of their predecessors, and show the world just how far they have come.